In January 2007, the Governance Task Force of the Miami
Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, consisting of several
Lighthouse Board members and the CEO, Virginia Jacko, recommended that the
Board take a number of steps to clarify its governing role and strengthen its
structure and processes.
The Board overwhelmingly
approved the Task Force recommendations, including a new standing committee
structure, and in the 13 or so months since then the recommendations have been
fully implemented, with Virginia
enthusiastic backing and
I was privileged to work
closely with Virginia
Task Force colleagues in my capacity as “Governance Counsel” to the effort, and
I have stayed in close touch with the Lighthouse since then.
This might sound like another consulting case
study, but there’s a twist, as I’ll explain.
Let me back up a bit.
In late summer 2006 I found a message on my voice mail from
a senior executive at the Lighthouse, saying that their CEO, Virginia, was
interested in talking with me about strengthening the Lighthouse Board of
Directors’ governing capacity. I was pleased,
but not terribly surprised, since a few months earlier I had spent an hour
talking with a couple of senior executives from the Lighthouse after a workshop
I had presented for the Broward County United Way, and I knew they were
enthusiastic about putting the board development ideas I’d shared to work if
they could swing it. When Virginia and I
connected by phone a day or two later, she explained that, as a new CEO, she
was very interested in building a really strong partnership with her Board and
that she was determined to have her Board play an active role in setting
strategic directions, rather than just sitting back and reacting to finished
staff work. Convinced that Virginia and
I could work productively together, I sent her a proposal that was accepted,
and we arranged to meet at her office a week or so later.
Thus began my collaboration with one of the most visionary,
insightful, and energetic CEOs I’ve been privileged to work with in many a
year. Oh, one other thing, Virginia is
totally blind. Experiencing gradual
vision loss while she was serving as Director of Financial Affairs at Purdue
University, where she spent 24 years, Virginia realized that her life,
professional and personal, was at a dramatic turning point. She could retreat from the wider world,
falling victim to a health catastrophe, or she could take action to ensure an
active professional life that capitalized on her substantial expertise and
extensive experience. Virginia tells me
that she never for a moment considered retreating. In 2001, she relocated to Miami to receive
vocational rehabilitation training at the Miami Lighthouse. Having successful completed her
rehabilitation program, she became a public spokesperson for the Lighthouse,
eventually joined its Board, and served as the Lighthouse’s interim President
& CEO before her permanent appointment.
She’s done an outstanding job since taking the helm, securing the
largest single-donor gift in Lighthouse history - $1.1 million – growing
program participation, expanding the facility, and more. In May 2007, Virginia was named Business
Woman of the Year in the Nonprofit Leader Category by the South Florida Business Journal.
What an extraordinary leader! Meeting after meeting in Virginia’s office
over the months we worked together, I found myself forgetting that she was
blind, reminded every now and then when I noticed her guide dog Tracker lying
beside her chair. I’m sure her success
in a challenging role has much to do with her keen intelligence and rich
professional experience, but many people equally qualified would probably have
thrown in the towel, content to retire from active professional engagement, and
very few, I’d venture to say, would have tackled the CEOship of a major
nonprofit agency under the circumstances.
What really made the difference, so far as I can tell, is Virginia’s
fundamental optimism and tremendous self-confidence. Can this be learned? I’m not sure, and I’d be interested in the